Wednesday, September 16, 2009

All Those Voices Buzzing In Your Head

Great storytellers don't just pop out of nowhere. Their skills are built over years of practice sculpting words and phrases before live audiences as they seek the hidden musicality of their words and the underlying rhythms in their speech. As each story is repeated, a polishing process quietly takes place as the storyteller learns what works and what doesn't work, which moments are extraneous and can be cut from the narrative.

By the time a storyteller has mastered the text, rhythm, and pacing of a story, he understands how to unravel its surprises with the same precision that a top chef plans a parade of spices over a diner's palate. Not only does he get to relive an emotional journey time and time again, he gets to share it with new listeners -- people whose wonder and awe are derived from the storyteller's charisma, conviction, and ability to captivate an audience.

As one experiences a series of solo performers delivering monologues, it becomes fairly easy to see which actors are secure in their material, which honestly love to work with an audience, and which are still developing their "sea legs." One also learns how different styles of performance work to support different narratives. For some actors, a linear narrative works best. For others, the challenge of telling their story lies in their ability to bring a variety of memorable characters to life.

In the following clips, two veteran [linear] storytellers display their gifts by delivering their narration in a single voice. Here is Mike Daisey in some excerpts from his one-man show entitled How Theater Failed America.

While Daisey performs most of his shows seated behind a desk, other storytellers like to move about. Currently appearing at the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival in The Surprise, Martin Dockery is a much more energetic actor, whose need to stay in a state of perpetual motion adds an extra level of excitement to his storytelling. In the following two clips, he describes his experience at a recent Burning Man festival.

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A different breed of storyteller (Ann Randolph, Dan Hoyle, Charlie Varon) prefers to use speech and body language to morph into fictional characters as well as some of the people they have met in real life. In performance, part of their acting skill involves delivering what are essentially tone poems that can offer the audience insights into the human condition by momentarily inhabiting the souls of their characters. Some also enact conversations between their characters, which requires a dramatic dexterity as fine-tuned as that of a ping pong champion or a grill chef at a Benihana restaurant.

Written and performed by Una Aya Osato (and beautifully directed by the artistic director of New York's CityKids Repertory Company, Moises Belizario), Recess introduces audiences to a prim Bronx elementary school teacher who is desperately trying to maintain control her hyperactive students in the classroom as well as the school's playground. The underlying foundation for Osato's show is that her pupils are recording video messages to President Barack Obama. Among the seven and eight-year-olds in her charge are:
  • Sam Anderson, a shy young Puerto Rican boy who is petrified that he will forget the answers he was asked to prepare.
  • Sherita Johnson, a sullen, confused young girl whose half-Chinese, half-Jamaican father is in jail and whose half-Dominican, half-black mother is about to die of respiratory disease.
  • Tisha Mitchell, an idealistic young girl with a florid imagination who keeps trying to reach out to Sherita.
  • Henry, the class wise-ass and an aspiring thug.
  • Cynthia Morales, the teacher's pet/schoolyard bully whose cousin fences electronics.
In the following clip from an earlier version of Recess, you can watch Osato impersonate Ms. White and her students:

In a stroke of directorial brilliance, the current version of Recess includes Osato performing a series of vignettes that have been videotaped in front of an American flag. A simple enough directorial gimmick, this allows a talented artist to interact with her own creations in performance (while showcasing each student's nervous and occasionally rambling message to the President).

Although this dual approach between stage and screen allows for fascinating interplay between teacher and students, it also requires incredible concentration, discipline, and lightning agility from Ms. Osato as a performer (impersonating a cluster of full-throated screaming brats can also be tough on an actor's vocal cords). Her success in pulling this all off allows the audience to witness a virtuoso performance from a gifted actor who can capture the nervous energy of squirming adolescents and bring it to the stage in all of its comic and grandly dysfunctional glory.

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